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The parable of the Prius

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I was at a talk on dematerialization a few weeks ago, and one of the speakers told "the parable of the Prius" to illustrate Jevon's paradox that efficiency gains do not necessarily reduce energy consumption (and from a climate perspective, greenhouse gas emissions). In the case of buying a fuel-efficient Prius, one saves a lot on gas bills but may be inclined to drive more since the cost per mile has dropped. Even if mileage is constant, the proceeds could be spent on a vacation to Mexico, offsetting and perhaps then some in GHG terms, the savings out of the tailpipe. It's also possible that savings could be poured into energy efficiency improvements, and seems to me that a rising energy/carbon price can conquer the paradox.

Anyway, the amusing part about hearing the parable is that we had just bought a Prius, like two days earlier.

Here's how it went down: for the past 13 years we've been proudly driving a 1992 Toyota Corolla 4WD wagon. It's been a great car for us, with lots of road trips camping and more. We called her Isis -- she was named before we got her, but we worshipped her all the same. She was a gift from dear family friends, one of whose father had gotten sold on a new Lexus down in Florida but no longer had the capabilities to drive it. We went down and drove the Lexus back to Vancouver, a fine road trip itself, and when we returned we were given Isis.

That was at the end of 1998, a time when I had just started working for the CCPA, and the first car either of us had ever owned. At that time most of my thinking and research was not about climate change but inequality, taxation and globalization. I knew about the "greenhouse effect" and about the Kyoto Accord, but it was not something that really registered with me as a top priority issue. Perhaps that is where most people are at today, while I have immersed myself in the climate justice project and become much more aware of the urgency of getting our act together. So far, like the song, "we're here for a good time, not a long time."

All of which makes for the interesting position of being an ecological economist facing the demise of a two-decade old car. In for its usual six-month tune up, our mechanic advised us that Isis was at the point where a new round of upgrades was needed -- brakes, CV boots (whatever they are, I never really understood), shocks, and a bunch of little things. Soon we had hit the point where the cost of keeping her on the road, and the growing challenge of getting parts (took us two weeks to get a replacement window from a junkyard last year after a break-in) made it more cost-effective to get a new vehicle.

At some level, keeping the car going may still be the most environmentally friendly given the embodied emissions in making a vehicle. On the other hand, besides cost, we would face at growing risk of getting stranded on the highway or getting in an accident if something ancient part blew out. After going through some denial, anger, despair and finally acceptance, we started to evaluate our options.

We had envisioned keeping Isis on the road until about now, anyway. But we thought that by this point, we would have more options for a fully electric car. In reality, progress has been a lot slower. There are the Chevy Volt or Nissan Leaf options now, but only just so, and I'm not sure that I fully trust the durability of a first-generation production run featuring new technology. Also, there really is no charging infrastructure which limits the vehicle from a pragmatic perspective, especially for trips outside the city. Oh, and they are freaking expensive, like $40,000.

From that we swung out to the opposite extreme: carless. We are fairly well located for such an option, and the rise of car-sharing opens up new possibilities of using a car just when you need one. I already ride my bike year-round to work and for many other trips I take transit. Taxis and rentals could fill niches. But having a kid dramatically increases the utility and convenience of having a car, and there are too many times (especially at odd hours) when transit would mean a massive increase in travel time. Like most folks we are time-constrained, and huge swaths of Vancouver were built out in the era of Motordom. I could see being car-free in a decade, well after the time when I need to pick up a teenager from a party in the wee hours.

It's a tough choice to buy a car when confronting climate change on a daily (albeit policy-oriented) basis. Like air travel, individual choices are more symbolic; they are not enough to solve the problem. We need collective action and systemic change that give people low-emission transportation options that are fast and efficient, but also develops "complete communities" that reduce the distances we need to travel. But right now, to quote another singer, "it's hard to be saint in the city."

How to square this unruly mix of demands? We landed on a Prius. Excellent ratings across the board; the best fuel/GHG economy around (except for those EVs but source of electricity is an important determinant of actual GHG impacts). I always thought there was concern about the batteries and longevity but seems this is not a problem at all. Sticking with Toyota also felt good given our previous experience with the Corolla. That said, they come at a price premium. After a test drive of the 2012 model, my wife went searching online and found a used 2004 model for sale at a dealership for a third the price of new.

We bought it, and even took it to Portland for a few days. It's a great ride, and the geek in me loves the dashboard component that tells you the average fuel economy since last fill-up. We hit a low of 5.3 L per 100 km on the highway, though in the city it is more like 7. A huge improvement over the Corolla, which averaged about 10 L per 100 km. Being a used car, this is also relatively better enviro choice than new (with apologies to auto workers). After having a car with no onboard computers, I do fear some kind of expensive system crash, but in the meantime you don't even need to take the keys out of your pocket to get in and drive.

So that's how we reinvested in the dominant car culture. If you are perched in a glass house, you may now throw your stones. Interestingly enough, all of the car ads during hockey games had zero impact on our purchasing decision. We were not even tempted to test drive a monster SUV or truck. As a society, overcoming that culture is going to be tough. Economists tend to think of transportation in utilitarian terms (which is why you may see economists driving around teenage Corollas), when a big piece of it comes down to status, identity and getting a little something-something.

Down the road I can forsee a plausible world of electric vehicles, with abundant options of transit, taxis and car-shares for most to supplement walkable and bike-able communities. It's a multi-decade transition, but maybe, just maybe, this is the last car we'll ever own.

PS. We sold Isis on Craigslist for $600 to a guy who was going to fix it up for his sister, the first time I'd ever sold anything on Craigslist. The other options were the provincial Scrap-It program, which would have give us $200 cash or $500 towards a new bike (tempting as my bike is 16 years old but still runs great after a drive train overhaul last year) or other mixes of money towards transit or car-sharing. I could have gotten $250 from a recycler. Or I could have donated it for a small tax receipt to the Kidney Foundation. Bottom line, though: Isis lives on.

This article was first posted on The Progressive Economics Forum.

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